Tuesday, February 24, 2009

SSD's in the Real World...or how I plan to save $2000 a year on three minutes a day

Solid-state drives (or SSD for short) are becoming the new rage in computing. You can get a good read on the background of the SSD here:

Wikipedia entry on solid-state drives

Over the last year or so, the capacity of drives has gone way up and the price has come down significantly. They've come down so much that we obtained three of the 80 GB Intel X-25M drives and tossed them into a Mac Pro as an experiment to see how fast they worked.

We were fairly shocked. I've never seen a single internal boot volume working at over 700 MB/s (not megabits...megaBYTES). Ever.

I was so impressed that I set out to conduct another experiment. This would be a real-world experiment: moving my entire MacBook Pro from a regular 2.5" SATA hard drive to an SSD.

Would it be worth the trouble in time and money to make the move? Could someone justify the expense of an SSD now versus waiting till later when the prices fell more?

I had to wait a little while until the 160 Gb SSD's came out from Intel. There was just too much stuff I kept on my laptop to pare down to less than 130 Gb of critical info--so in the meantime I read up on my friend Lloyd Chambers' excellent technical primer on using Intel SSD's in both MacBook Pro and Mac Pro.

I received my 160 Gb Intel SSD earlier this week. I copied off the boot drive to the SSD with Mike Bombich's fantastic tool Carbon Copy Cloner. Then I set about conducting tests with the primary drive before I moved over the the SSD.

Rather than re-invent the wheel with Lloyd's technical analysis, these are my anecdotal thoughts on my own experience with running an Intel SSD in a MacBook Pro.

The test system is my 2.5 Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo-equipped MacBook Pro with 2 Gb of RAM running Mac OS X Leopard 10.5.6.

I was tempted to do the tests from a clean installation, but this is a real world test. I didn't have time to un-license and deauthorize all my apps and then reauthorize fresh builds on the new system. I figured most other folks wouldn't have the time to do that either--so I opted to do a clone of my hard drive.

These were essentially boot-time tests. I didn't want to make any major file changes to docs or anything else on the old drive since I was going to start using the SSD permanently--so I only tested the boot times along with conducting some other interesting tests. Here are the apps I booted:

Apple iCal
Apple Numbers
Apple Pages
Apple iPhoto
Apple iTunes
Adobe Photoshop
Adobe Illustrator
Apple Final Cut Pro
Microsoft Word
Apple Safari
Apple Mail

I also tested system boot time and shutdown. Finally, I ran AJA System Test to determine drive performance.

Here is the chart of the raw performance I got between my old hard drive and the new SSD. Time is in seconds.

To say that this workflow is fast is a complete understatement. Everything is fast--my Mac finally feels like it works as fast as I think.

Response is instantaneous. Boot times on some of these applications is nothing short of ridiculous (Booting iCal and Numbers in 1-2 seconds?)

However, what really surprised me was the performance tests I ran with the help of AJA System Test.

With the hard drive installed, I ran System Test on a standard 1.0 Gb test using SD sized frames. With nothing else running. I got writes of 43.6 MB/s and reads of 52.2 MB/s. Very respectable all around. I then loaded up iTunes and let it start playing a track. I reran the tests with results of 38.9 MB/s and 41.2 MB/s. A drop of around 20% in performance, but still not horrible.

However, I then started Safari and did a 15-tab load--then I ran the same AJA test. On the hard drive the writes plummeted to 12 MB/s and the reads went to 12.8 MB/s. I thought I did the test wrong because an 80% performance hit didn't sound right. I reran the test--with the same results.

With more apps running, I got the performance down to around 4.2 MB/s sec for reads and writes.

Yuck. No more hard drives for me--that kind of performance sucks.

I swapped the HD for the SSD and performed the same tests.

With nothing loaded, we got writes of 62.2 MB/s and reads of 120.8 MB/s. With this test alone, we had already increased writes by 20% and doubled the read performance. The next test took me by surprise and I had to run it three times.

Performance went up when I did the iTunes test! I expected a performance hit when I launched and played iTunes, but the writes went to 68.7 MB/s and the reads went to 122.1 MB/s. I tried it three times--the reads and writes were all higher while iTunes was running versus when there were absolutely no apps running in the background.

I can't explain it--and I doubt it has anything to do with iTunes--but it was very strange to see drive performance actually increase when placed under increased load.

Finally, I ran the 15-tab Safari test and expected performance to fall apart. It didn't.

While iTunes was playing and Safari was loading 15 tabs, SSD writes were at 63.2 MB/s and reads pegged 121 MB/s. If there is an engineer out there who can explain why the SSD works faster when under load, I am all ears...

I figured all those time savings netted me an additional 3-4 minutes daily. At our lowest hourly bill rate, I figure on recouping nearly $2000 per year on the time I reclaimed.

Okay...okay...that is kind of ridiculous, isn't it?

It would be if the time savings was just from booting apps. However, the kind of performance achieved with this new SSD has added a level of productivity that I haven't had before. I can switch back-and-forth between windows and apps with zero lag time. Opening files is nearly instantaneous. Accessing websites is about twice as fast since the disk caching is way faster. Reading my mail and synchronizing my mailbox between the laptop and my SMTP servers is much faster than it was before.

And the dreaded Spinning Beach Ball has totally vanished.

I conservatively estimate I'll be working 10-20% faster than I was before. That alone is worth the price of the drive for me. Is the speed worth it to you? You have to be the judge of that.

Here are my new recommendations for the fastest possible system (either MacBook Pro or Mac Pro)

1. Get as much RAM as your budget will allow
2. Get the fastest processor possible, too.
3. Equip your system with an SSD-based boot drive (make sure its an Intel X-25...) If you can afford to, put in two or three in the Mac Pro.

These three recommendations will get you the fastest available Mac.

One more note--you can't get it from Apple. They don't have the Intel X-25 drives in their systems. If you want yours X-25 equipped, let me know at info@silverado.cc

tl

5 comments:

synapticlight.com said...

Very interesting that, especially for Final Cut Pro :-)
thanks for you investigation.
although I would feel more comfortable with a bit of margin in a 320GB SSD.
And there would still need to be a properly configured RAID for FCP.

Phill(synapticlight)

Silverado said...

Phill,

Using the MCE OptiBay you could put another 160 Gb drive in there:

http://www.mcetech.com/optibay/

That would double your performance. Then, you could get an external Blu-Ray drive if you needed to use optical media on your machine.

tl

diego said...

I´m planning to buy a 15 inch macbook pro 2.93 ghz and I haven´t decided yet about going for 7200rpm or ssd. I've got the money for the 256 gb ssd, But I wonder if it's worth it or not. It seems wiser to buy the spinning hd and change it later on for an ssd. But to be honest, I can't really wait, unless the ssd drives provided buy apple are really not worth it. I work mainly with final cut, and the speed advantage of ssd would be great. any suggestions?
thanks for your help.
Diego

diego said...

I´m planning to buy a 15 inch macbook pro 2.93 ghz and I haven´t decided yet about going for 7200rpm or ssd. I've got the money for the 256 gb ssd, But I wonder if it's worth it or not. It seems wiser to buy the spinning hd and change it later on for an ssd. But to be honest, I can't really wait, unless the ssd drive provided buy apple are really not worth it. I work mainly with final cut, and the speed advantage of ssd would be great. any suggestions?

SSD Hard Drives said...

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